It was a Working Title double-header today. First, the Oscar contender: Atonement is breathtakingly assured. During Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice, I smiled at the screen with pleasure. He took you through these people’s rooms, their lives, their conversations, hopes, dreams. He made you care about them. The emotions were believably large within an intimate space. He didn’t let the moviemaking overwhelm the story, he kept the cuts coming, moving fast, the dancing was spectacular. It felt modern, up-to-date, not stuck in some deadly stuffy period past. And Keira Knightley gave a winning, Oscar-nominated performance. (Here’s her interview in the London Times.)
So, Atonement is a confirmation that Wright has the right stuff. Having done well in British TV, when he took on Jane Austen’s classic, there was some question about whether he should be taken entirely seriously. The answer is, yes. Wright seems to have that gift for making his stories utterly accessible. Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of the Ian McEwen novel is close (Richard Eyre was going to direct, but when he was committed to Notes on a Scandal, there was an opening for another director). Wright gets the info across efficiently–at the same time letting the warmth of summer play out slowly, so that you feel the little girl (well-played by Saoirse Ronan) running through the grass, Knightley’s half-clothed plunge into a cool fountain on a hot day, and the loss of something that could never be again. The movie recalls bits of The Go Between, The Garden of the Finzi Continis, or Smiles of a Summer Night. But then it goes somewhere else, to a stymied romance playing against the backdrop of war, like Brief Encounter or Reds or Dr. Zhivago.
As for James McAvoy (here’s his Guardian profile), while I’ve admired many of his past performances, he has never delivered a full-on leading man romantic role like this. He’s masculine, robust, and he nails the nuances. He and Knightley are well-matched, you root for their star-crossed romance.
And Wright indulges in a complex tracking shot which is up there with some of the most breathtaking long shots ever–it’s over 5 minutes long–across an enormous military encampment after the retreat from Dunkirk. It takes a while before you realize there hasn’t been a cut. It’s breathtaking. And justified. Not just a stunt. The movie breaks your heart. It’s about love and loss and disastrous mistakes on all fronts.
As for the sequel to Elizabeth, there is always a tendency, even at Working Title, which tends to work on a modest scale, to inflate a sequel into something bigger than it needs to be. So Shekhar Kapur has fashioned Elizabeth as a big bombastic swirling camera costume drama on a 60s period epic scale. He brings on the CG Spanish Armada and has Clive Owen as a swashbuckling Sir Walter Raleigh swinging rather foolishly from a ship’s rigging. (He’s fine the rest of the time.) There’s a shameless overwrought quality about this movie that is very Bollywood. (The music is deafening.) Luckily Cate Blanchett, as Todd McCarthy points out in his mixed review, is worth watching. And yes, you can put costumes and makeup on your Oscar ballot.
And Universal will push for Blanchett, who I thought had a shot at winning for the first Elizabeth eight years ago. She’s a bigger star now and has won a supporting actress Oscar as Katharine Hepburn. More likely: another supporting actress nom for her channelling of Bob Dylan in I’m Not There.
At the Elizabeth after party, which was packed with members of the Hollywood foreign press, Working Title’s Eric Fellner and Tim Bevan (right, with Blanchett) were glowing from the heat generated by Elizabeth (which should play commercially) and Atonement. They’ve had a very good year, with Hot Fuzz and Mr. Bean, which were international hits.
[Originally appeared on Variety.com]